When Ariana Neumann was about nine years old, she discovered a box in the elegant house she lived in with her parents in Caracas, Venezuela. She opened the box, and in it she found a pink identity card with a photo of her father as a much younger man. The card, issued in Berlin and dated October 1943, also had a stamp with Adolf Hitler on it. Neumann couldn’t make sense of it, especially that fact that the name on the card — “Jan Šebesta” — was totally unknown to her.
It was evident from this disturbing discovery that there was much Neumann didn’t know about her father, Hans. But when she tried to ask questions, she was told not to.
Neumann never saw the box again until after her father died in 2001.
Hans Neumann, who had ordered his secretary to destroy almost all of his papers after his passing, made sure his daughter received the box and its precious contents. He had given to his daughter all his documents and personal effects from the war years as a way of granting her permission to finally dig into his past and discover not only who he was, but also who she is.
It took two decades for Neumann to crack the mystery revealed in her father’s box. The result is, “When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains,” a beautifully wrought book that is both a detective story and a family history.
Neumann, 49, takes readers along on her years-long research journey to figure out who her Prague-born father was before becoming a respected Venezuelan industrialist and philanthropist. In parallel, she takes us back in time, vividly recreating the Neumann family’s life before and during the Holocaust — including how her father remarkably eluded the Nazis by hiding in plain sight in the Reich’s capital. It is a story of amazing courage and ingenuity, and also of the exceptional loyalty and selflessness of non-Jewish friends and relatives who risked their own lives to save the Jewish Neumanns.
“My father and I liked to solve puzzles. I think he left [the box] because it could provide me the answers he wasn’t able to give me… He was a remarkable man, but also very damaged emotionally,” Neumann told The Times of Israel in a recent phone conversation from her home in London, where she lives with her criminal barrister husband and three teenage children.
Hans Neumann lived so much in the here and now that he very rarely spoke of the past, and never discussed religion or mentioned that he was Jewish. He and his much younger second wife, Maria Cristina, raised their only daughter nominally Catholic. It wasn’t until the author arrived at Tufts University as an undergraduate that someone suggested to her that she was likely of Jewish heritage because of her last name. “I was very shocked by it,” Neumann said.
Neumann inherited her father’s box at an inopportune time to attempt to make sense of its contents. She was a young mother and focused for the next decade on raising her children and working part-time in journalism and publishing.
“I just kept the box in my house in London and I would leaf through it every so often, and if someone who knew German or Czech came I might comb through some papers and ask them questions,” she said.
A decade ago, she decided she could wait no longer, and in preparation for trying to understand her father and his motivations, she pursued a master’s degree in the psychology of religion at the University of London.
“I thought (without having yet done any of the research into my father’s story), that had it been me, I would have wanted to embrace Judaism with my entire soul just as revenge, to make a point really. I hadn’t understood why my father hadn’t done that. I was very curious about what processes are involved in why some people are religious and some are not, and how religion helps us cope with trauma,” Neumann said.
“It wasn’t until I really started doing the research that I realized that that approach in trying to understand my father was incredibly naïve… My father not only went through a war, but he also spent two years pretending to be someone else. He also grew up in a culture of extreme anti-Semitism, and his family was assimilated and disliked labels,” she said.
Hans Neumann’s box was followed by three more troves of invaluable historical material she pulled together from various sources. In 2010, the widow of Hans’s older brother Lotar gave Neumann a box of letters that the brothers had received from their parents Otto and Ella who were incarcerated in Theresienstadt, along with documents related to the family’s paint factory in Prague. (Lotar survived in hiding in Prague thanks to his marriage to his non-Jewish first wife Zdenka, as well as to her considerable wealth and connections.)
Then in 2016 a long-lost cousin in California provided a collection of letters and postcards that Otto, Ella, and other relatives had sent to Otto’s brother Victor Neumann, who had immigrated to the United States prior to the war.
And finally, in 2017, Neumann tracked down the current owner of the country home in the Prague suburb of Libčice that had belonged to Otto and Ella Neumann. The grandson of the people to whom Hans Neumann sold the property in 1947, he provided the author with personal documents belonging to the Neumann family that had been locked in a safe for decades. They included Otto and Ella’s unsuccessful petitions to the US government for refugee status.
By making sense of all these documents, building out a family tree, interviewing newly-found relatives, visiting Prague and Berlin, and consulting archives in Europe, Israel, and the US, Neumann was gradually able to paint a detailed picture of who her grandparents and other extended family members were, and what happened to them. All told, 25 of Hans Neumann’s relatives, including his parents, were murdered in the Holocaust.
When it all became really harrowing, I tried to concentrate on the light and love in the letters
In particular, the letters from Theresienstadt (which experts have informed Neumann are exceptional in their number and in the way in which they describe financial and economic aspects of life in the ghetto-concentration camp) have allowed the author to get to know the grandparents she never met.
“When it all became really harrowing, I tried to concentrate on the light and love in the letters. They died horrible deaths. People tried to dehumanize them, but they did not let that happen. My grandmother focused in her letters on the small joys, the flowers, reminiscing about the trees in Libčice, and asking for lipstick. Those are the little rituals that keep us human and keep us alive,” Neumann said.
Along with the many papers and photographs collected by the author, she also found several objects. Among them is a ring that Otto Neumann made for his beloved daughter-in-law Zdenka, who was resourceful in obtaining food and other items requested by him and Ella in their letters from the ghetto. Otto especially needed black dye or shoe polish to darken his white hair, which made him look older than his years, and thus more vulnerable to deportation to a death camp. Zdenka even smuggled herself into Theresienstadt twice to make personal contact with her in-laws.
Today, Neumann proudly wears the ring, made crudely from a bit of copper pipe and decorated with Zdenka’s initials. It is her most prized possession.
The most riveting part of “When Time Stopped” is Hans Neumann’s absconding deportation and escape from Prague for Berlin, managing to live there for two years under the assumed identity of a Czech Christian named Jan Šebesta. (The fact that he was uncircumcised — unusual for a Jew — helped make this pretense possible.)
In Berlin, he worked as a chemist at a plant crucial to the German war effort and run by avowed Nazi party members. Forced by the company to be a volunteer firefighter, he experienced the horrors of the Bombing of Berlin first hand, barely escaping with his life.
Going on this challenging journey into the past has changed Neumann.
“It has made me much more aware of anti-Semitism and how it permeates every aspect of our society, and that horrifies me… I think we are racist animals and if you don’t watch it… I think it is insidious and you have to be so careful,” she said.
There is also much that is positive. She has gained a family that she had not known about, and also gained incredible insight into her grandparents. “I see bits of my grandparents in me and my children. It’s lovely to find those threads that bind us to the past and take us forward,” Neumann said.
“I feel an incredible pride that at least half of me comes from this lineage of very strong, erudite people who have gone through so much and are still here. I am so proud to have these ancestors. I’m really not religious, but if I were going to be religious, I would unhesitantly want to be a Jew,” she said.